Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pandora

I don't care much for technology.

People who know me will find that an odd statement; after all, I spent the last 20 or so years of my career in education focusing on technology. I really don't know how that happened, and it didn't always happen willingly.

When technology first began creeping its way into classrooms, I was excited about what it could do for learning -- and I still am. I just never wanted to be the one responsible for delivering technology to the classroom -- I wanted to be the one using it in the classroom.

I still appreciate those things technology can help with. I love email and surfing the web for information. I enjoy maintaining this blog. And I find conducting my personal business online to be fast and efficient.

But I'm not a techno geek. I don't keep up with the latest gadgets, for example. I don't use Twitter, and I've never created a Facebook account. My cell phone is just a cell phone, nothing more. I don't text or surf the web from my phone.

But something I've found lately that I do enjoy regarding technology is Pandora Internet radio. Let me tell you about it.

When we moved into our new home, we bought a Samsung Blu-Ray disc player along with a Yamaha receiver. Among other things, this combination of gadgets allows us to receive Netflix ($7.99 per month for unlimited movies) and Pandora. You can also pick up Pandora on your computer, which is where I listen to it most of the time.

You will need to go to http://www.pandora.com/ to create an account. You then create "stations". These stations can be individual artists, groups, or even genres. On my list of stations, for example, I have the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Folk Rock. I also added the Rat Pack recently to get the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Once a station is created, Pandora will then play music by that artist/those artists as well as any music it perceives to be related. For example, with my Jackson Browne station, I also hear quite a bit of Dan Fogelberg and James Taylor. As songs are played, you can tell Pandora if you like that artist or dislike that artist. By doing so, you can help Pandora focus on what you hope to hear.

When we installed our system, we put speakers on our patio. Now that the weather is almost ideal in San Angelo, we spend a great deal of time on our back patio listening to our favorite music. We often hear versions of songs we've never heard before. Yesterday, for example, we heard a live version of the Mamas and Papas' California Dreaming that we had never heard before.

If you've not used Pandora before and you love music, I highly recommend you give it a try. I do not think you'll be disappointed.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Landscaping 101

Our back yard is plain. Up until last week, it was nothing more than an expanse of grass bordered by a privacy fence.

Our backyard as it appeared in July. Grass had grown in well. Piles of dirt are from beds I was preparing at back of house and along east fence.
As you can see in the above picture, our bermuda grass had come in well, but the yard was simply plain. So, I recently began clearing a 7 foot wide bed across the entire width of our back fence. My idea is to make it a desert habitat of drought resistant and heat tolerant plants.

I began by simply turning the soil and working the grass out. This is a time consuming task because of the vast number of rocks in the dirt. The rocks range in size from marble size to football size. I then dug up the 3 sprinkler heads at the back and capped them. This in the long run will save quite a bit of water. After cleaning out the bed, Donna and I then went shopping. We bought 5 purple sage (cenizo) plants [4 for the back and 1 for the front bed], 2 sotol plants, a windmill palm, and an ornamental pomegranate. I immediately planted those, so now the back of our yard looks like the picture below.

Drought resistant and heat tolerant plants along back fence.

We also purchased 2 bur oak trees, which will be planted in the back half of the back yard. Those should be delivered this week. Once that is done, the yard will take on a completely different look and I'll update the pictures. We've enjoyed sitting out on our back patio so much more with just the plants in the above picture lining the back fence, so I know the addition of the 2 trees will enhance things even more.

I'm currently prepping wide beds along the east fence (would be along the left in the picture above, but not visible in that picture). These beds will be wide enough to allow 2 fig trees to grow over the years. We will also use that bed for growing some vegetables, especially tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.

Donna and I visited a desert habitat park in San Angelo this week to look at the plants there. We made a list of several we would like to have in our yard. Our goal is to eventually make the entire back half of the back yard a low water area. I'm also glad to report that all watering of these plants has, to this point, been done with water from our rain barrels.

I'll continue to update our progress as our back yard continues to change in appearance. There is still so much to do, though, such as adding more plants, building bed liners to enhance the appearance and neatness of the beds, adding more bird baths and bird feeders, etc.

Stay tuned . . . .

Friday, October 21, 2011

Night at the Theater: Wait Until Dark

As a youngster, I saw the movie version of Wait Until Dark and loved the plot complexities. Of course, it didn't hurt that the beautiful Audrey Hepburn played the female lead, but the other cast members were equally strong: Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Jack Weston.

A few years ago, Donna and I saw this Frederick Knott play in Midland, and it was well done. Last night, we watched the Angelo Civic Theater (ACT) production, and I was left somewhat disappointed.

The plot revolves around Susy Hendrix, a blind housewife living in a Greenwich Village apartment. As a favor to a friend, her husband had recently returned from a trip to Montreal with a doll that contained, unbeknownst to him, heroin. 3 men then hatch a plot to trick Susy into giving them the doll. Their plot hinges on taking advantage of her blindness. It is a complex plot, and when well performed, it keeps the audience fully engaged. Last night, I just really wanted the play to end.

After watching Cabaret, I had hoped that all plays performed by Angelo Civic Theater would be of the same quality. In fact, several actors from Cabaret played key roles in Wait Until Dark. But I always knew it was a performance, and that is, perhaps, the key to pulling off a good play. I always knew, for example, that the actress playing Susy was not blind. And the accent of one of the actors was really strained.

However, I believe we attended opening night of the play, and that is usually not a good thing to do. I prefer to allow a few performances to pass before attending a play; this gives the actors a chance to become comfortable in their roles and get over opening night jitters. However, our calendar just got confused this time.

Regardless, we look forward to the next performance of ACT.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Night at the Theater: All My Sons

On Thursday night, Donna and I attended our second play at Angelo State University (ASU). I reviewed the first play we attended there back in August, which was Butterflies are Free. If you read that review, you will recall that I was not overly impressed. Our experience this time was better.

The students of ASU performed Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Miller, of course, is one of the most notable American playwrights, and All My Sons is one of his better plays. First produced on Broadway beginning in 1947, it beat out Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh for the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. In other words, it is a good play.

Set immediately following World War II, the play is actually loosely based on a true story. During the war, two partners manufactured parts for fighter aircraft. During production at one time, a number of faulty parts were produced; although the partners knew of the problems, they shipped the parts to the military anyway. As a result, numerous planes crashed killing several pilots and crew members.

The play then centers around the pursuit of the American Dream at all costs and how the various family members react to this issue.

The play, in general, was well acted, especially the parts of the father, Joe Keller, and his son, Chris Keller. The ages of the characters in the play range from an 8-year old boy to Joe Keller, who is in his sixties. It is difficult for college students to pull off such a range, but with only 1 or 2 exceptions, the actors were believable in their roles.

Other than a few botched lines which were not that noticeable, this was an enjoyable play, certainly better than the first ASU production we attended.

In the next couple of weeks, we will attend the production of Wait Until Dark by the Angelo Civic Theater. We are eager to see if the quality of this play matches that of Cabaret, which we saw a month or so ago.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Followup: Rain Barrels Full

I got my rain barrels set up just in time. This past Saturday, rain moved into San Angelo about noon and continued the rest of the day and into the early morning hours of Sunday. I received 2½ inches of rain at my house. Other locations in the Concho Valley received good rainfall as well. Still, it is not enough to break the drought; we need sustained rain over a short period of time to revive our reservoirs. But any little bit helps.

It did not take long for my rain barrels to fill up. I hated to watch water pouring out of the overflow pipes. I sure wish I had more barrels in place to catch that runoff. Still, I now have over 100 gallons of good rain water to use on my outdoor plants, and that will help. Not only will it conserve a little bit of water, the water itself is better for plants that treated water.

Time for me to start looking for more barrels.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rain Barrels

I've written on here many times about the water crisis we are currently in. Donna and I have always been very conservative about using all of our natural resources. We recycle most of what we use in our house, for example. Now, to help with the water crisis, we've begun adding rain barrels to our home.

The Concho Valley Master Gardeners offered a rain barrel class this past Saturday. Donna and I attended. The registration fee also included a rain barrel, which we "made" during the class.

After a brief introduction, we selected our barrels and began the process of making them ready to collect rain water. Below are the finished products:

Our rain barrels are located at the back of our house.
Each barrel is 55 gallons. A half-inch rain falling on a 400 square foot patch of roof will typically fill a 55 gallon barrel in about 30 minutes. Such water can then be used to water plants as needed. Since it is rain water, it is actually healthier for plants for it does not contain any chemicals. It is important to use food grade barrels which might have formerly contained items such as tomato paste or cooking oil.

After obtaining such a barrel, it is necessary to prepare it for collecting water. Begin by cutting a hole in the top where the water will enter the barrel. We placed flower pots in these holes to guide the water into the barrel, and we placed a filter, held in place by small stones, in the bottom of the pot to prevent mosquitoes and other insects from entering the barrel.

Top of rain barrel. Note flower pot directly under downspout. A filter lies at the bottom of the pot, held in place by small rocks. Pipe on left is overflow.

Next, cut a 2 inch hole on the side of the barrel near the top. This will serve as the overflow pipe. Once the barrel is full, water will flow out this pipe. You can also daisy chain barrels together. To do so, simply use plastic pipe to connect 2 or more barrels. Then, as one fills up, water will begin flowing into the next barrel. You can connect as many as is practical for your rainfall.

Near the bottom of the barrel, drill a small hole to accept a water spigot. This is how you will retrieve your water. You can then simply connect a hose to the spigot and water items as you normally would. I mounted our barrels on cinder blocks to get a bit more height so that there would be more pressure when watering.

Spigot at bottom of the barrel. Note that I turned it sideways to make it easier to attach a hose.
I dug out the ground beneath 2 downspouts and then placed 5 cinder blocks under each downspout. I filled the cinder blocks with dirt to stabilize them, then placed a 2 foot by 2 foot square of sturdy plywood on top of the cinder blocks. This gives each barrel a solid perch, and also raises them a bit to increase water pressure (more gravity force).

I don't expect 2 rain barrels to make much of an impact on the environment, but it does give me a certain peace of mind. I can now water my plants without feeling guilty, especially with strict water restrictions in place as we have in San Angelo. And I do intend to add more rain barrels. You can often find such barrels for sell for about $15, so that is not much of an investment in cost. Of course, it does take time to outfit the barrels and then locate them in your yard. When we built our house, I asked that the downspouts be put in sections so that I could later remove the bottom sections and place rain barrels beneath them, and this has reduced my work load greatly. All I have to do is remove the lower portion and I'm ready to go; no cutting or anything else is needed.

The rain barrels above are not pretty, but I have these in my back yard behind a privacy fence. We do have some spouts in front. For these, I will purchase barrels that blend into the environment better or that are more attractive, such as the one below.


I've also seen rain barrels that look like large rocks and other items that really blend in.

We have a total of 8 downspouts on our house. 2 of those are connected to short gutter runs (3 or so feet), so they will not capture much rain water. The other 6 downspouts, though, should capture a good amount of water. By using those downspouts and daisy-chaining rain barrels, a great deal of water can be collected.

For those interested in rain water collection, the Internet has tons of information. Rain collection devices vary in size, with some being quite large. I've always been interested in this concept, for as a child, my grandmother's house had a cistern next to the house that collected water during rains. It's an old practice that is coming back. To me, it's just a very practical and conservative way to live. As our resources become scare, we have to look at smarter ways to live, and we need to eliminate waste.